Monday, February 05, 2018
Destiny: The Incredible Story of the Jewish People
By Ken Spiro
When John F. Kennedy was a young man he told his mother, Rose Kennedy, that he wanted to be an actor. She answered, “Why play someone great when you can be someone great?” He certainly took her advice seriously.
The same can be said about us. We run off to the movies to escape our mundane existence and feel like we are part of something bigger, part of a great adventure.
But if it’s adventure that we want, we need look no further than our own history which is as exciting, action-packed and intense as the greatest Hollywood blockbuster! Unfortunately too many Jews don’t have the knowledge and perspective to realize how epic and unbelievable the story of the Jewish people really is.
Jewish history is so unique and unbelievable, but when the unbelievable happens to you on a regular basis you get desensitized to it and it just seems normal. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime mister, probably said it the best: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” This is true not just about modern Israel but for all of Jewish history.
Even a quick look at some of the major facts of Jewish history clearly shows that there is something remarkable and unique about the Jewish people and their history:
∙ Despite its tiny size, no people, pound for pound, have contributed more to the world than the Jews. (The fact that Jews are but .2% of the world’s population yet have received 23% of all Nobel Prizes since 1901 is just one of many examples of the Jewish people’s disproportionate impact.)
∙ Despite all these contributions, no people have been more threatened, hated and persecuted than the Jews.
∙ Notwithstanding this hatred and animosity, no people’s ideas have been more impactful and more transformative than the Jewish people’s.
∙ Israel, the newest old nation on the planet and the only western, democratic state in the Middle East, is the most criticized, condemn, vilified and threatened country in the world.
∙ Despite existential threats and political and economic isolation, Israel prospers and has contributed proportionally more to the world than any other nation on the planet.
Even the most cursory look at Jewish history begs us to ask so many questions:
∙ What is so unique about the Jewish people and their ideas and how does this explain the transformative impact they have had on the world?
∙ Why have they been so hated and why have so many of the most dangerous and evil people and nations throughout history felt so threatened by the Jewish people to the extent they have tried to wipe them off the face of the earth?
∙ How have the Jewish people managed to survive and prosper when so many nations, including the greatest empires, have vanished into history books and museums?
∙ How could any nation survive multiple exiles, be dispersed around the world for thousands of years yet come back millennia later and re-establish its state in its original homeland?
Throughout history, many of the greatest minds have taken note of the fact that there is something very unique – even supernatural – about Jewish history. Soviet-era Russian political and Christian religious philosopher Nicholai Berdyaev summed it up beautifully when he wrote:
Their [the Jews] destiny is too imbued with the "metaphysical" to be explained either by material or positive historical terms...Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by special predetermination...The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny...
Prof. Nicholai Berdyaev The Meaning of History. (London. 1935)
Jewish history is not a Hollywood epic; it is reality, a reality that is relevant to each and every Jew on the planet. The Jewish historical experience begs us to ask so many important and pertinent questions:
∙ Why has such a tiny nation played such and huge and fateful role in history?
∙ Where is this story going?
∙ And most importantly of all: What is my role in the story and how can I make a difference?
My just-published book “Destiny” attempts to answer these and many more questions that at are at the center of Jewish identity. This book explores the meaning of the Jewish people’s mission, from its very beginnings almost four thousand years ago to today and beyond. And it’s the greatest real-life story ever told.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Seven Places Where Exodus-Gods and Kings Got it Wrong
By Ken Spiro
Ridley Scott, who is better known for movies like Alien and Gladiator, has decided to take a shot at The Book of Books-The Bible. His new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings is the fourth attempt to re-create this Biblical Epic. Cecil B. DeMille made two version in 1923 (a silent movie) and 1956, The Ten Commandments, and DreamWorks did the animated version, Prince of Egypt, in 1998.
It seems that each new remake of the classic Bible story gets further and further away from the “original script.” So here’s a list of seven places where Ridley got it wrong:
1-God: There is no disembodied voice of God anywhere in the movie -not even speaking from the burning bush! The only character who speaks on behalf of God is a petulant pre-adolescent boy. I always thought that if God had a voice He would sound more like James Earl Jones. I have no idea where the boy came from but he inspires very little awe.
In The Book God is always talking to Moses and never appears in any human-like form but always as a disembodied voice. The very notion of God taking a human form goes completely against the incorporeal nature of the infinite Creator of the universe that Judaism so strongly affirms.
2-Moses: Moses is played by a very intense and often sulking Christian Bales. While Bales is a first-class actor there are certainly enough Jewish actors in Hollywood so I have no idea why Scott didn't use one of them or at least pick someone who looks a little Jewish! Scott’s Moses has no idea he is Jewish until confronted by a band of Hebrew slaves including his brother Aaron.
In The Book Moses, who is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter (Scott got that one right), has his mother, Yochevet, as his wet-nurse (I guess he only wants “kosher milk ;-) and therefore always knows that he is Jewish. The fact that he stays loyal and connected to the Jewish people despite their lowly position and his exalted status is a testament to his greatness and his commitment.
In the movie, Moses gets his calling 9 years after he has fled from Egypt.
In The Book he spends decades in Median and only has his first prophetic encounter with the burning bush at the ripe old age of 79. Jewish tradition tells us that he dies when he’s 120 just prior to the Jews entering the Land of Israel and after 40 years of wandering in the desert.
3-Pharoah: Scott’s Ramses is Jealous of Moses’ special relationship with daddy (The Pharaoh Seti) and throughout the movie has only a few direct encounters with Moses and is given only a bare minimum of opportunities to relent and allow the enslaved Hebrews to leave Egypt.
In The Book there is no indication of step-sibling rivalry and Moses constantly pops into the palace, before and a between each plague where he gives Pharaoh numerous chances to end the suffering of Egypt, but Pharaoh hardens his heart and doesn't relent.
4-Plagues: While I will admit that Scott’s CGI special effects are pretty impressive (In my opinion, the best part of the movie) there are also some inaccuracies here. He misses a few plagues: lice and wild beasts (unless you count the crocodiles at the beginning which are NOT mentioned in the Bible) and he also seems to hint that many of the plagues could possibly have natural explanations. They also seem to take place over a fairly short time span…a few weeks or so.
In The Book there are ten altogether and they take place over a period of about a year. In addition the Bible makes it clear that these plagues are truly supernatural complete violations of the laws of nature: Hail that is also on fire and darkness so thick that you couldn't move in it. The point of all of these plagues was to demonstrate that idolatry is an illusion and that God has absolute power over all the forces of nature. This idea of one, all-powerful God was really radical and totally different from all the other polytheistic religions of the ancient world.
5-Prophecy: Starting with Moses’ first revelation at the Burning Bush and continuing throughout the film, Scott gets it all wrong. In the movie Moses gets caught in a storm on the mountain, gets hit on the head with a rock and then buried in a mudslide. The implication is the whole burning bush episode could be the by-product of a delusion caused by a head injury. He also doesn't seem to have a very good prophetic connection to the Almighty and is left to the mercy of the random appearance of the petulant-pre-adolescent who speaks on behalf of God.
In The Book Moses wanders into a cave and has the very powerful and fully conscious burning-bush prophetic experience. The Bible also makes it clear that Moses reaches the highest level of prophecy humanly possible and throughout his prophetic career had constant access and a clear connection to the Almighty. It is precisely due to this uniquely clear nature of Moses’ prophecy that his word has a unique status in Judaism and is the foundation of all Jewish law.
6-Guerrilla Warfare: Now here’s a bit that Scott seems to pull completely out of nowhere. Before all the plagues start Moses organizes and trains the Hebrew slaves into a guerrilla army to sabotage Egypt and force pharaoh’s hand. Only when this fails does the petulant pre-teen appear and tell Moses to stand aside and he’ll take it from here.
In The Book there is no mention of civil insurrection or guerrilla warfare. The Jews are on the sidelines from the beginning and God runs the show from the get go.
7-Splitting of the Sea: As I mentioned before –The CGI sea-splitting scene is really cool but again Scott embellishes this final dramatic climax to the story. As a tsunami-like monster-of a wave rushes toward the fleeing Egyptian army, Moses and Pharaoh charge toward each other intent on engaging in a Troy-like, one-on-one, fight-to-the death scene. Weather conditions don’t allow for that to take place and the scene ends with Pharaoh, the sole survivor of the Egyptian army, standing on the Egyptian shore, gazing off into the distance toward the freed slaves who have escaped his wrath.
In The Book no such dramatic final show down takes place nor is there any indication in the Bible that Pharaoh returned to his shattered kingdom to resume his rule. In any case, going back to Egypt would probably not have been the smartest move on Pharaoh’s part as one could imagine that his popularity ratings would probably have been pretty low upon his return.
There are actually many more inaccuracies in the movie but it’s pretty clear that Exodus: Gods and Kings, while certainly being and entertaining and exciting epic of a movie, once again proves the The Book is always better than the movie.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
A Rare Pope Indeed
By Ken Spiro
From the perspective of the Jewish people Pope Francis is a rare pope indeed.
It would be a huge understatement to say that historically Catholic-Jewish relations haven’t been very good. It would probably be more accurate to say that the Church is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the horrendous anti-Semitism suffered by European Jewry during the last 2,000 years.
The roots of this tremendous animus go back to the very beginnings of the early church and even earlier.
For two thousand years-from the time of Abraham until the birth of Christianity, Judaism existed alone as the world’s only monotheistic faith. The Jewish people’s unique beliefs and different lifestyle set them apart from the pagan world and the great classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. The differences led to open hostility toward the Jews and both the Greek and Roman Empires, which occupied ancient Israel, attempted at various times to eradicate Judaism.
Early Christianity began as a splinter sect of mainstream Judaism most-probably sometime in the early 1st century CE. During the second century it continued to evolve and diverge from Judaism, eventually separating completely into a faith that attracted a large number of pagan converts.
Despite numerous attempts by the Roman Empire to eradicate nascent Christianity, in the 4th century CE the Roman emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Empire. A great leap forward for the spread of monotheism but now traditional Roman animus toward Judaism took on a new theological undertone.
Toward the end of the Great Revolt against the Roman Empire (67-70CE) the Roman legions had burned the Temple in Jerusalem and leveled the city. Centuries later the young Roman Catholic Church put a theological spin on the destruction. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple together with the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel was far more than mere- Roman punish for rebellion. It was divine retribution-The wrath of God. From the perspective of the church the Jews had rejected Jesus as the messiah and were instrumental in his death. As punishment for their sins God rejected the Jews, destroyed their temple and caused them to wander the earth until the second coming of Jesus.
These unpardonable sins were at the root of the tremendous hostility and suspicion embedded in the collective consciousness of the church and actively spread by the church and the early church fathers to the masses of Christendom.
In the eyes of the church the Jews were perfidious Christ-killers, in league with the devil; poisoners of wells who deliberately spread plagues to destroy Christendom. They kidnap Christian children and use their blood to bake matzot (unleavened bread eaten during Passover) while bleeding Christendom dry of its wealth though their usury, greed and conspiracies.
Church-driven anti-Semitism led to open violence against Jews, especially at the time of the first Crusade as well as constant persecution, punitive taxation, humiliation, ghettoization, expulsions and mass murder.
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment the church’s powerful hold on the masses weakened and anti-Jewish violence in western Europe waned.
But then came the Holocaust and while Hitler’s attack against the Jews was not specifically theological there is no doubt that he would not have been able to do what he did to European Jewry without building on 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism. At the same time, the role of the war-time Pope Pius XII and his apparent failure to confront the horrors of Nazism remains a dark stain on the history of the church.
Out of the ashes of Auschwitz the State of Israel emerged yet despite the death of 6 million Jews and miraculous re-birth of the Jewish state it took decades for the church to make any major steps in re-evaluating its attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish people.
FORGIVENESS-Finally in 1965 the first bold move came at the end of Pope Paul VI’s tenure. It is known as Vatican II and the document makes three very significant statements about the Jewish people:
-Only a few Jews were involved in the plot to kill Jesus
-No Jew alive today can be held responsible for Jesus’s death
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. …Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone. Vatican II –Nostra Aetate
After two thousand years the church was finally able to forgive the Jews for something they never did in the first place.
ACCEPTANCE-The next major step came from Pope John Paul II in 2000 and it was even more significant. He established diplomatic relations with Israel and visited the country even praying at the Western Wall. If God had allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel and re-unified Jerusalem maybe He hadn't rejected them after all. This represented a huge shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism.
RECONCILIATION AND LEGITIMIZATION-Pope Francis is proving to be quite a maverick. He eschews much of the formality and pomp of his office while working hard to rejuvenate the church and reconcile the church not only with modernity but also with other faiths.
Based on past statements made by Francis it could well be argued that he will bring about the greatest shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism in 2,000 years:
We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God was never revoked….With them we believe in one God who acts in history and with them we accept his revealed word. Pope Francis- Evangelli Gaudium 2013
The notion that the Jewish people’ covenant with God remains intact is truly a radical break with classic Catholic theology and reminiscent of statement made by dual-covenant, pro-Israel, evangelicals like Pastor John Hagee.
This new perspective will hopefully lead to a significant re-evaluation and improvement of the relationship between the Catholicism and Judaism, Catholics and Jews and the Vatican and the State of Israel.
Since the church of Saint Peter was established almost 2,000 years ago there have only been three popes out of 266 brave enough to make significant changes in the relationship between the worlds’ largest faith and one of the smallest. Let us hope that trend continues.
Tuesday, May 06, 2014
Blood Moon Tetrads-The Jewish Perspective
By Ken Spiro
There has been a great deal of excitement and expectation surrounding an astronomical phenomenon called the Blood Moon Tetrad, which will take place between April 2014 and September 2015. The Blood Moon Tetrad occurs when there are four total lunar eclipses, back-to-back, in a short period of time, with no partial eclipses in between.
Tetrads are a fairly rare phenomenon. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries there weren’t any at all, while during other centuries there have been multiple tetrads within a relatively short time span. What is particularly intriguing about this tetrad is the timing:
April 15, 2014-first night of Passover
October 8, 2014-first night of Succoth
April 4, 2015—first night of Passover
September 28, 2015-first night of Succoth
To have a tetrad fall out at the beginning of the major Jewish festivals is a far rarer phenomenon. The last two times it occurred was in 1949-50, at the end of Israel’s War of Independence, and 1967-68, before and after the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. Given the events that surrounded the last two tetrads –it’s no wonder that there is so much interest and speculation, especially among Evangelical Christians, as to the significance of the current tetrad.
So what is the Jewish perspective on the all of this?
The first place to begin is of course the Bible. In Genesis 1:14-16 it states: God said, “Let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heaven to separate between day and night; and they shall serve as signs, and for festivals and for days and years…”And it was so. And God made the two great luminaries, the great luminary to dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the night; and the stars.
From the Jewish perspective, besides providing light to the world, the other function of the celestial bodies is to serve as a cosmic clock that informs us when a new month begins (a Jewish month is one orbit of the moon around the earth:29.5 days) and when the holidays fall during the yearly cycle. Since the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, the moon (and anything that happens to it) is associated with the Jewish people. The majority of the world uses a solar calendar; therefore, the sun is associated with the Gentiles.
On a deeper level, the idea that these heavenly bodies exert a spiritual influence on the world (astrology) can also be found in Jewish sources. The great 18th century scholar, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto wrote:
It was for this purpose that the stars and their planets were created. Through their cycles, all phenomena rooted in the spiritual realm are transmitted and reflected to their physical counterparts. (The Way of God-Part II, chap 7.)
Simply put, what happens on the earth is somehow influenced by the heavens. The question is to what extent?
Another interesting idea that exists in Jewish thought is that while stars do exert some sort of influence on the destiny of the individual and human affairs in general, the Jewish nation is above this influence. The Talmud (Tractate Nedarim 32a) states “Ain mazal b’Yisroel” – “There is no luck/constellation* in Israel”, and given the supernatural and unique nature of Jewish history, one could certainly make a good case for this statement.
Given these two conflicting ideas, there are no 100% clear opinions as to the significance of eclipses in Jewish philosophy. However, based on Jewish thought, historical events associated with past eclipses, and even prophetic statements in the Bible, one could definitely make the case that solar and lunar eclipses are somehow associated with major events in Jewish and world history.
One of the clearest and possibly scariest indications of what eclipses might symbolize is found in the Book of Joel Chapter 3: 4, where the prophet describes the events leading up to the Messiah’s arrival with the words: “…the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood [red] before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.”
From the Jewish perspective it may well be the Blood Moon Tetrad is a powerful sign of major events to come. As much as we may speculate on the meaning of events in the heavens, we just have to look here on earth at the headlines… turmoil in the Middle East, Iran going nuclear, Russian re-emergence on the world’s stage, global economic instability, etc., to realize that major changes on planet earth may be just over the horizon. May God give us the strength to survive these travails and may we all merit seeing the happy ending of the story.
*In Hebrew the word mazal means luck but is also the word for constellation or sign of the zodiac
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
God Back Stage
by Ken Spiro
Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Purim is probably the most unusual. It’s the only holiday where the story takes place outside of the Land of Israel. It isn’t mentioned in the Five Books of Moses, and it’s one of only two books in the Bible where God’s name isn’t mentioned (the other isSong of Songs).
The story behind the holiday, which is recorded in the Book of Esther, is very strange indeed. Everything in the narrative seems to point to chance, randomness and coincidence. It kind of reminds me of the movie “Babel,” where several seemingly separate stories converge; in the end, everything fits together into a coherent story. These cases point to the tremendous “design” that exists amidst seeming haphazardness
This is one of the most powerful messages of the Purim story. From the period of the Bible up until the destruction of the First Temple 2,500 years ago, God connected and interacted much more directly and openly with His creation. We had prophecy and open miracles, and there was little doubt that the big MAN upstairs was running the show. Since that time God’s face has been hidden, and it’s much harder to feel His presence in history and in our lives. Doubt crept into the world and the human race slowly drifted away from spirituality.
One of the biggest lessons that we learn from the Purim story is that while God may be hidden, He is always there, and while events may seem random, nothing happens by chance. From the greatest events in human history to the small things that happen to us daily, there is reason, purpose and design to everything. Chance, happenstance and randomness are just an illusion.
One reason God hides His face is to allow us to grow by giving us greater ability to exercise our free will. How differently do we behave when we feel like we are being watched? As the saying goes, “When the cats away, the mice play.” The real challenge of life is to build our relationship with God when He seems to be so distant from us.
I think that one of the best ways to build our relationship with God is by building up our sensitivity to how God interacts with us daily, which is often in the most subtle and seemingly random ways. In Hebrew this is called Hashkacha Pratit- God’s personal supervision.
A great example of this happened to me more than 30 years ago when I first came to Israel and began my journey back to Judaism. A few months after I arrived, I was sitting by the Western Wall. It was very late at night and the plaza was almost empty. It occurred to me that I had been in Israel for three months, but had yet to leave a note in the wall. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a pad, but I had no pen. “Oh well” I thought “I’ll have to do this a different time.” A few minutes later there was a tap on my shoulder. Standing behind me was Dave, a fellow student from my school in Jerusalem. He said to me. “I’ve been here three months and wanted to leave a note, but I have a pen and no paper.”
Sometimes it’s the smallest of things that truly give us a glimpse of the BIG picture.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Some Food for Thought on a Food-less Day
By Ken Spiro
A Food-less Day
When we think about fast days in the Jewish calendar, the one that first pops to mind is usually Yom Kippur-the holiest day of the year.
Yom Kippur is the longest and most serious fast, lasting an entire day. What many people don’t know is that there are also four other minor fasts, most of which last for only half a day - from sun up to sun down - that have a very different theme and focus than Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, we refrain from eating because on this day, the holiest of days, we are like angels – spiritual beings unconcerned with physical needs such as food and drink – totally focused on spirituality and our relationship with our Creator.
Unlike Yom Kippur, which is a holy day mentioned in the Torah (Numbers 29:7), the minor fasts are not mentioned in the Torah. These fast days were instituted by the rabbis many, many centuries ago and are linked to calamitous events in Jewish history. The best known of these fasts is The Ninth of Av or Tisha b’Av in Hebrew – the one fast not mentioned in the Torah that, like Yom Kippur, also lasts a full day. This fast is connected to the most tragic events in Jewish history, most notably the destruction of both the First and Second Temples which occurred on the same date, though many centuries apart.
Another of these minor fast days will be occurring this week, on Friday, and it’s called the Tenth of Tevet or the Fast of the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet. So… what happened on the 10th of Tevet in Jewish history that caused the rabbis to institute a fast?
Siege of Jerusalem
On this date, in 588 BCE, the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege would last for over two years and, after great suffering and famine, would eventually lead to the destruction of the First Temple on the 9th of Av of the year 586 BCE. Tens of thousands of Jews died in the siege of the city and, following the city’s fall, the survivors were led away in captivity to be exiled in Babylon. This exile lasted 70 years until the Persians, who conquered and destroyed the Babylonian Empire, gave the Jews permission to return and rebuild the Temple.
One of the themes of this minor fast day, as well as others, is sadness and mourning over the many tragedies that befell the Jewish People. However, there’s more to this fast day than just mourning.
Time, Energy, and Power
There’s a fundamental belief in Judaism that time has power and that there is a specific energy implanted in all the special days of the Jewish year: Shabbat, holidays and even fast days. On these special days, be they happy or sad, the unique energy implanted in the day can be more easily tapped into. In short, we can connect, change and grow on these days in ways that we cannot during ordinary days of the year. In order to benefit from any of these special days, we have to first understand the focus and theme of each one and the opportunities they represent. Only through this clarity, can we maximize the potential of the day.
Theme of Minor Fast Days
The primary theme of the minor fast days is repentance – an opportunity to focus on the dysfunction within the Jewish People that led to our external suffering, destruction, and exile. It’s also a fundamental belief in Judaism that all external tragedies can always link to some kind of internal flaw or problem within the Jewish People that damages our relationship with each other and with God. Afflicting ourselves by not eating or drinking is a powerful tool that shakes us awake and helps us realize that there is something not working properly within the Jewish People – something that needs to be fixed.
A fast day is a special opportunity that allows us to focus on the deeper spiritual causes of suffering. The ultimate goal of the day is not to wallow in depression but rather to wake us up and motivate us to work toward fixing our flaws, thus avoiding future tragedies and energizing us to fulfill our unique mission as a “light unto nations.”
As a people we have survived many tragedies. Not only have we survived but we’ve outlasted all our enemies and have lived to see the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. As amazing as Jewish history is, we cannot afford to become complacent. Enemies continue to threaten Israel and anti-Semitism is still alive and well, while apathy, assimilation, and infighting sap our strength and prevent us from building a Jewish People that the world so badly needs.
This Friday may we all use the unique opportunity of the day to get the clarity and strength we need so tragedy will be a thing of the past for both the Jewish People and the world. In the words of the prophet Zechariah, may these fast days be transformed into days for, “…joy and for gladness and festivals of truth, peace and love.” (Zecharia 8:19
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Five Fascinating Facts about Hanukah
By Ken Spiro
Here’s some information about the Holiday of Lights that you may Not have known:
1-Hanukah was NOT a holiday invented by the rabbis so that Jewish children would get presents at the same time as Christian children got their presents at Christmas. The reality is the opposite. The Talmud explicitly states (Tractate Shabbat 21b) that the holiday took place on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev which usually falls out around the same time as Christmas, but not always. (This year for example it’s a whole month earlier and corresponds with Thanksgiving in the US!) The opposite is true. Most historians agree that we do not really know when Jesus was born but that early church fathers deliberately set the date around the time of the winter solstice in order to depaganize what was normally a period of time (the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere) that held many pagan holidays.
2-Hanukah was NOT a war for freedom from Greek occupation of Israel. By the time the Jewish revolt, lead by the Maccabees, finally took place, the Greeks had been occupying the land of Israel for more than a century and a half. The revolt only started when the pagan Greeks went after not Jews, but Judaism, banning many of the fundamental practices of the Jewish people like circumcision and Sabbath observance. Hanukah is almost certainly history’s first ideological war and had the Greeks not meddled in the religious freedom of the Jews, the Jewish people would have most likely peacefully existed in the Seleucid Greek Empire.
3-Hanukah did NOT really start out as a revolt against Greece but as a civil war amongst Jews. Before the open revolt against the Greeks began, much of the tension that led to the revolt was caused by internal strife within the Jewish community. Greek culture (sports, theater, bathhouses, etc.) was THE culture of the Mediterranean thousands of years ago. Many Jews, especially upper class Jews, were attracted to this culture, believing that it was Judaism that was outdated and Greek culture was the wave of the future.
Many of these Hellenized (fancy word for “Greek”) Jews were more Greek than the Greeks (similar to some Jews in Germany prior to the Holocaust). Their attitude toward their fellow Jews, the vast majority who remained loyal to Judaism, was often quite hostile. They believed that even force should be used to wean their fellow Jews off their primitive beliefs and practices. It is they who played a significant role in instigating the Greek attack on Judaism. Hanukah in some respects was really a civil war of Jew against Jew before it became a war of Greek against Jew.
4-Hanukah was NOT a short war. We tend to think of Hanukah as a rather brief conflict but the reality is quite the opposite. It’s true that after three years of fighting and several major victories, the Maccabean forces, led by Judah, were able to liberate Jerusalem, cleanse and re-dedicate the Temple, but the city was lost to Greeks and later recaptured by the Maccabees a second time. It was only after about 25 years of on and off conflict (during which time most of the 5 Maccabee brothers were either killed-in-action or murdered in various plots) that the Greeks finally gave up on the idea of ruling over the land of Israel and the country, under Maccabean leadership, achieved independence for a little over a hundred years until the Romans came, saw and conquered the land.
5. The story of Hanukah does NOT appear in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible was already a closed book many centuries before Hanukah. (One criteria for getting anything included in the Bible is that it has to be authored by a prophet and the authors of the Books of the Maccabees were certainly not prophets). The story of the Maccabees comes down to us from two sources know as Maccabees 1 and Maccabees 2.
Maccabees 1 was written in Hebrew probably during the later half of the second century BCE and most likely by a royal chronicler of the Hasmoneans (Maccabean Dynasty). It gives us a detailed account of the events leading up to the revolt, the revolt itself and the later Maccabean rulres who ruled after the revolt.
Maccabees 2, written in Greek, was also written later-probably in the latter half of the first century BCE and may well be based on an earlier extensive account written by a Hellenized Jew by the name of Jason of Cyrene who lived around 100BCE. It is a less comprehensive account that deals primarily with the early events of the revolt.
While these books do NOT appear in the Hebrew Bible, they ARE included in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox editions of the Christian Bible but usually NOT in Protestant editions. (The reason they are included at all is almost certainly to create historical continuity between the end of the Hebrew Bible and beginning of the Christian Bible.)
BONUS FACT: Hanukah does NOT usually fall out on the same day as Thanksgiving. As I mentioned at the top-it usually happens around Christmas time and then next time this will occur will be in around 79,000 years!! As rare as this timing might be there are many connections between Hanukah and Thanksgiving. (Beside the fact that the word for “praise” in Hebrew is Hodu which also happens to be the word for “Turkey” in Hebrew).
The Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1680 designated their first Thanksgiving as a day of praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty for their deliverance from the religious persecution of Europe and post-Harvest bounty in the New World. Maccabees 2 (10:6-8) makes it very clear that the first Hanukah was celebrated as a delayed Holiday of Succoth. Since during the actual time of Succoth that year, the Jews were fighting the Greeks and didn’t have control of the Temple – the holiday was “pushed off” until the liberation of Jerusalem. Succoth also usually takes place after the harvest and Maccabees 2 specifically mentions that this first Hanukah was specifically a festival of praise and thanksgiving for the Jewish people’s deliverance from the hands of Greeks. (This Succoth connection may also put another spin on the 8-day length of Hanukah as Succoth, together with the holiday of Shmini Atzeret is ALSO 8 days!)
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